Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a case study for scrapping the formulaic actioner whose chief attraction is a big star portraying some extra-awesome ass-kicker. This genre dates back three decades now, and while it once offered entertaining popcorn-munching, it is now predictable tedium. Edward Zwick’s film, adapted from Lee Child’s novels, is Exhibit A: a lackluster slog through quips, chases and fistfights, plus Tom Cruise.
Cruise returns as Jack Reacher — dude, never go back! — the former Army military-police major who roams the country sorting out criminal situations in a highly efficient but extra-legal manner. He turns up in Washington, D.C., to visit another take-charge MPer, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). There, he learns she’s been arrested … for something that happened to some military police in Afghanistan. Reacher also discovers that he might be daddy to Sam (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old currently moping in the foster-care system. (Reacher is perfect at everything, except maybe family planning.)
Coherent and compelling plot is not this film’s strong suit. A roundelay of surveillance ensues: Sketchy dudes are following Reacher, who kinda follows them; Reacher stalks Sam, who catches him following her; everybody complains about being followed. In short order, Reacher also busts Turner out of prison; collects Sam; visits a private girls’ school; and foils the TSA, getting everybody on a plane to New Orleans. People continue to chase him, including the main villain, who is so generic that he is simply listed in the credits as “The Hunter.” It seems that The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger) and Reacher share a loner ethos prevalent among the action-oriented. “People like us,” notes The Hunter, “can never go back to the world.”
2012’s Jack Reacher was a dumb but still snappy affair, and I’m not just saying that because it set its thrills on Pittsburgh’s hills. In contrast, Never Go Back, despite Cruise’s enthusiastic participation, feels low-budget. There’s the five-cent plot (escape bad guys, fight bad guys, repeat); the fake D.C. locations; the lack of other stars; and the wretched dialogue (“Who the hell are you?” “The guy you didn’t count on.”) Saddling our lone-wolf hero with a woman, a kid and a mini-van often threatens to turn this into Jack Reacher: Family on the Run. At least the ladies are not in for the romance, and think nothing of snapping a neck or two.
Nor are the action scenes worth the ticket price. Reacher sets two of its chases in laughably worn-out settings: the restaurant kitchen (death by colander!) and costumed street parade. The film builds to the inevitable showdown between The Hunter and The Reacher: “Let’s finish this — just you and me.” It’s a particularly uninspired ending: two lumbering alpha males slugging it out, like a pair of over-the-hill wrestlers just dutifully pacing through the phony headlocks and head bashes. The age of the action man is over.